AB Thinks  →  18th May 2017

Help, I want to become a strategic communicator!

How strategic is your role? Answer this simple question: Do you work in communications or on communications for your organisation? The question implies a subtle but important nuance between someone who accomplishes a series of tasks and someone who defines a series of tasks.

The strategist creates and owns the plan. They may be great implementers too – which is rare – but first and foremost they have taken several steps back from the problem to ponder on it. They may never become embroiled in it.

If you are stuck in a quagmire of tactics, here are eight steps I find useful when aiming for the higher ground.

#1. Find the data, gain the insight

Assuming you work for a profit-making organisation you need to know exactly how your organisation makes money. Who are its most profitable customers and why? How would a new competitor threaten the business? What external factors shape its market and influence the company’s share price?

All this information is regularly collated and analysed by colleagues across the business. If your organisation is publically traded, market analysts are another source of information. Go find them and pick their brains. Ask them about the unvarnished story behind the numbers. Use this data to develop your own conclusions about your organisation’s performance.

#2. Ask a better question

The French politician Pierre Marc Gaston said “…judge the mind of a man by his questions rather than his answers.” Strategists are curious. They want to know why. As a result, they ask difficult, thought-provoking and surprising questions. What is most important versus most urgent? What if we did the opposite? What award do we most want to win? What counts that we are not counting?

Borrow a technique from the Toyota production line – ask ‘why’ at least five times to get to the root cause of a problem. Here’s a highly amusing example of where it can get you.

Why all the questions? You need to formulate a communications strategy based on insight. I find insight comes from micro analysis – deconstructing the problem and examining its component parts. Then I look for solutions that can be applied at a macro level. It’s helpful to apply the Pareto Principle at this point, often called the 80-20 rule. In short, 80% of the effect of something comes from 20 per cent of the cause. A company may find that 80 per cent of its sales come from 20 per cent of its customers. You need to discover which 20 per cent of communications activity will have the greatest outcome.

#3. Take responsibility for solving a problem that matters

Don’t wait for your organisation to bestow title, rank and authority on you. Your company will never manage your career as well as you. Rather than hope to be noticed for a promotion, ask to take on new responsibilities now that give you the opportunity to do important work.

Offer to solve a problem that really matters to your organisation – or at least offer to explore the problem. If you are unsure about the strategic value of your current internal communication activity, consider the long-term consequences of not doing it. If there would be no or little negative impact, stop doing it right now and find a better problem to solve.

What you decide not to do is equally as important as what you do. Strategists use judgement to allocate time and resources effectively.

#4. Be in the right place, with the right people

A friend told me he smoked in all weathers outside his HQ because it was the best way to have informal chats with his chain-smoking CEO. Who influences you? Your network is your nourishment. Surround yourself with people who inspire, inform and energise you. The strategist Tony Robbins says: “If you want to turn your dreams and goals into a reality faster, you must get yourself in proximity with people who are playing the game at a higher level than you are. Proximity is power! Remember: Who you spend time with is who you become.”

#5. Develop a vision by thinking backwards

We think of strategists as elite thinkers – rare individuals with vision whose ideas resonate beyond their time and place. Yet we are all visionaries. We have all imagined a future that does not yet exist. Creating a vision simply starts with wondering ‘what if?’ “What if we knew we couldn’t fail, what would we do to make communications amazing round here?”

I find it useful to think backwards. I skip forward to the end and imagine everything is sorted. Now the dream has been realised, what’s different? How are people thinking, feeling and behaving around here? These are the outcomes you are trying to achieve. This technique adds colour and depth to desired outcomes – it gives your vision real meaning.

#6. Make the plan a message

The plan that supports your vision links resources to tasks along a timeline. It should also set out how you will measure whether those tasks have had the desired affect. See my Slideshare on the basic structure of an IC plan or Rachel Miller’s how-to guide for writing an IC strategy.

Less is more. Great strategies are predicated on doing a few things very well. Summon your experience and insight to make a judgement call on what to leave out.

Your plan should be an exemplar of the type of communications you wish to create – bold, engaging and memorable. Write to persuade and inspire. Bring your plan to life as an infographic, animation, podcast, film – or at the very least a pithy one-page primer.

#7. Listen your way to the top

The former US President Calvin Coolidge once said: “No one never listened himself out of a job.” In a world where everyone can be a broadcaster, pumping out content day and night, the power of listening is easily forgotten.

Strategists listen with purpose – not to influence, empathise or appear caring. They listen to learn. To hone your listening skills, I urge you to read Search Inside Yourself by Chade-Meng Tan, the former software engineer at Google who developed the company’s mindfulness training programme. This book will convince you those that listen harder, learn more.

#8. Share your knowledge

Perhaps there was once a time when we could treat knowledge and insight like a scarce resource – to be hidden or hoarded like food in a famine. But those days have long gone. Adam Grant‰’s book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives our Success explains why those at the top are often people who naturally ‘play it forward’. They seek no immediate reward or return for sharing their bright ideas with others. As a result, givers draw people to them. They encourage collaboration and an open culture where ideas flourish and learning is viewed as a necessary and valuable lifelong process.

To hone your strategic skills, I recommend reading Multipliers by Liz Wiseman. It explains how to amplify the capabilities of those around you. As a strategist you don’t need to have all the answers. You just need to extract all the know-how from those around you.